I wonder what it would be like to wander into the Sex and the City movie with no foreknowledge, no literacy, no understanding of basic vocabulary like "Mr. Big" and "Manolo Blahniks" (the latter does sound kind of like alien babble). For such tabula rasas, there is probably a review out there written by one of the middle-aged men who dominate film criticism, some of whom I witnessed entering the SATC screening with grim, clenched faces, as if they were heading for a group colonoscopy.
This is not that review.
I’m a fan of the seminal HBO series, and the film is, for all intents and purposes, four back-to-back episodes; be warned, or be thrilled. It begins on a nostalgic note, four years since the show’s finale, with sex columnist-turned-author Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) strutting the streets of her beloved New York and noting all the young, giddy 20-something women who remind her of who she used to be. In that signature voiceover, Carrie reflects on two decades of soul- and soulmate-searching, all the while working an outfit montage that hits some glorious highs (a head-sized flower pinned to her chest!) and some lows (a flower? Head-sized?).
There has always been more than a little fairy tale to the Sex and the City formula: four women, seemingly without families of their own, making their way in the contained wilderness of Manhattan.
Many smart people who loathed the show object to the off-the-(French)-cuff materialism that has become its legacy — surely very few middle-income women cared about Jimmy Choos before Carrie and company. Such naysayers argue that while real women may love a good heel, they don’t live as apolitically and ahistorically — as shallowly — as the women of SATC.
Maybe not, but there has always been more than a little fairy tale to the formula: four women, seemingly without families of their own, making their way in the contained wilderness of Manhattan. As Carrie (the heroine), Charlotte (the prim preppy), Miranda (the unsentimental redhead) and Samantha (the Mrs. Robinson) hack a path through the thorny liberation handed down to them by the generation before, they upend the Cinderella dream again and again. In this way, even from the sometimes-frustrating confines of its candy-coloured bubble, the show/movie is political and is in tune with history. It has been noted before that Carrie is the new Mary Tyler Moore, now with a libido and a bank account. Women with sexual appetites choosing their own futures, subverting expectation and propriety – that’s a pop-culture image that didn’t really exist before SATC debuted a decade ago, and has faded fast since the show’s conclusion.
Most of all, SATC lived by the truism that women exist in relation to one another, and are hyper-alert to the social dynamics that build the world around them. (That seems as good a definition of feminism to me as any.) This may also be the reason so many straight men want to blow their heads off when SATC is mentioned. You know those YouTube mash-ups that are just a string of car chases from famous movies, with all of the surrounding story — the love, the relationships, the talking — cut out? Maybe SATC is to men what those car-chase mash-ups are to women. SATC is All The Other Stuff. I prefer to call that stuff "life," and consider a car chase the anomaly — but each to her (and I suspect it’s her) own.
When we meet again, Carrie and the long-time bad-news — but oh-so-perfect — boyfriend Big (Chris Noth) are still together and engaged in that ultimate urban pastime: real estate hunting. When their agent alludes to the sky-high price of a dream penthouse, Big waves off Carrie’s concerns with, "I got it," a phrase most of us reserve for picking up a friend’s pint. In this particular New York fairy tale, Prince Charming is a Wall Street financier, and sub-prime mortgages never happened.
The ensuing co-habitation euphoria is short-lived. When an acquaintance is forced to auction her jewelry after being shut out of her long-term boyfriend’s pad, Carrie gets a reality check about the meaning of financial dependence. (That kind of smart-chick questioning is why I love this franchise. Has a Kate Hudson romantic comedy ever mentioned "division of assets?") Carrie brings it up with Big, and he offers a casual un-proposal: "I wouldn’t mind being married to you." And so the wheels are set in motion for a wedding movie, complete with a dress montage – Vivienne Westwood wins – and Carrie’s inner bride set loose upon the shopping capital of the world.
But then, just when you’re bracing for Made of Honor, the wedding takes an unexpected turn. I can’t say if what happens will move those who are unaware of the decade-long romantic tumult between Carrie and Big, but without giving too much away, it’s a brutal wallop. The sobriety of the scene is well-handled by director Michael Patrick King — and Parker, too, who has become such a benign public figure (perfume shill, cover girl) that it’s a shocker to watch her acting. Carrie has to recover from the fantasy she permitted herself, and her depression is poignant, making way for the strongest SATC storyline: female friendship. In one strangely touching scene, Carrie is too ruined to get out of bed, and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) spoon-feeds her yogurt, deepening a relationship we’ve witnessed for a decade.
Much of the film is devoted to Carrie’s slow reclamation of herself. She gets a personal assistant, played without effort – which doesn’t mean effortlessly – by Jennifer Hudson. Perhaps if the part was better written, or Hudson a less slack-jawed non-presence, this addition wouldn’t feel so shamefully forced. As it is, the introduction of an African-American girl who loves Louis Vuitton doesn’t come off as equality, but another form of product placement. Mercedes Benz? Check. Diane von Furstenberg? Check. Sassy black friend? Check. Now Carrie has everything!
As Carrie recovers (dyeing her hair brunette and employing a flattering black palette in her wardrobe), the other women face their own transformations. Corporate lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has been "exiled" to Brooklyn with her young son and Steve (David Eigenberg), her nice-guy husband. Face to face with the I Don’t Know How She Does It conundrum — running between her family’s needs, her work needs and her own — she’s more miserable than usual. (Miranda’s compass is set to miserable anyway.)
Samantha is at least exiled to somewhere sunny: she’s moved to L.A. with her younger beau, Smith (Jason Lewis), to manage his movie star career. But she, too, is itchy with dissatisfaction, sexual and otherwise. "How did I come to a point in my life where I utter a man’s name 50 times more in a day than my own?"
The surprising darkness that infuses the film stops at Charlotte (Kristin Davis), of course, ever the optimist. She’s shocked to find herself pregnant, happily married to the mensch lawyer Harry (Evan Handler) and a mother to an adopted Chinese daughter who is unrealistically content to colour while the big girls talk S-E-X. As Nixon and Parker wrestle with lacerating relationship pain, Davis gets to use her peppy, slapstick charms: watch her totter along at the wedding in a ridiculous mermaid gown and behold a dash of Debbie Reynolds.
As with all episodic television, some storylines are richer than others. Samantha has the least to do, but she does it with that heavy-lidded delivery that’s gone past camp and back to something genuinely funny. The sheer density of the film means it’s a bit of an emotional pig-out — there are a lot of highs and lows. King should have slowed down and paid closer attention in some places (more Miranda, please), axing other sequences entirely – the fourth fashion montage was probably a tipping point – to take advantage of the space film has that television doesn’t. SATC is so busy, its narrative constantly spiking like a cardiac patient’s, that somehow, at two hours and 20 minutes, it feels rushed.
Yet at a time when the oldest women in popular culture are Miley Cyrus and the Gossip Girl teens, the film is sure to curry favour with female audiences who are hungry to see women – no matter how unlikely their wardrobes – on screen again. Watching these old(er) friends wend their way back to grace and new kinds of independence, I felt anxious about their absence. Other shows that have attempted to fill the void left by SATC’s ending have failed miserably, lacking the original’s solid acting and uniquely bittersweet tone. SATC continues to thrive in syndication, and now, on film, because it presumes that women have inner lives as interesting as their outer ones. I couldn’t help but wonder: What will we do without them?
Sex and the City opens across Canada on May 30.
Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.